June Leaf, “Recent Work” installation shot (all image courtesy the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Before I talk about her exhibition, I want to share an anecdote about the artist. In 1997, June Leaf breezed into my studio at the Vermont Studio Center with a disarming smile from ear to ear. (It was the first time we met.) As she looked over my work, chatting and laughing, she spotted my skateboard in the corner of the room. Before I could say no, the 68-year-old woman proceeded to get up from my desk and stand on my skateboard, gently rolling back and forth. I was in love.

June Leaf, “A Couple Walking” (2010–2011), acrylic on tin, 10 x 9.25 inches

A few days later, as I droned on and on about the difficulty of being an artist, she said: “If you want to be a painter, paint. Don’t think, just do.” I was pissed, and kind of embarrassed, because she was right. I shared this anecdote because it embodies the type of person Leaf is and reflects the kind of work she makes — whimsical but serious.

June Leaf has her fifth solo exhibition, titled Recent Work, at the Edward Thorp Gallery in Chelsea. The approximately 20 works on view were completed between 2010 and 2011. They comprise painting, sculpture and dioramas. Each work is an amalgamation of various materials — tin, wire, steel, fabric, acrylic, collage, canvas and paper. Her specific subject matter (spiral staircases, stepladders, crank shafts, theaters) unifies the seemingly disparate parts, which seem to be animated as much by the artist’s restless soul as her frenetic hands.

Leaf is a tinkerer of the highest order. At first glance, her works appear playful, almost innocent. They beg to be touched. Her sculptures resemble handmade dioramas, like the one’s kids make in school, but instead of cardboard, she uses scrap metal, tin, wire and wood.

Her two-dimensional work seems to be an extension of her sculptures, perhaps offering the artist more time to ruminate. Motion is almost always suggested. In the painting “Couple Walking,” a duo walks arm in arm, as if whistling in the abyss. Though the painting is no more than a few smears of acrylic paint on a patch of tin, the picture resonates. In “Figure Descending Staircase,” a thin tin man — held together by soot and wire — walks down a winding set of stairs, one step at a time. I love how the staircase begins and ends in a void, leading nowhere. This is the stuff of dreams.

June Leaf, “Untitled (Theater)” (2010–2011), mixed media, 53h x 23.25w x 36d (image courtesy the gallery)

Detail of “Untitled (Figure Cranking)”

Much of her work features miniature men and women that have been cobbled together by scraps of wire and tin. Often, they are engaged in some activity — turning a crankshaft, descending a staircase or climbing up a ladder. In “Untitled (Theater),” she constructed a miniature diorama that sits on top of an antique sewing machine. The tableaux features two characters. The first figure is seated on a chair, near the foreground. The second figure, whose back is to the audience, runs to the edge of the stage, just past a giant crankshaft. In “Untitled (Figure Cranking),” a naked man, stooped-back, turns a hand crank, which is attached to a large device that serves no discernible purpose. The figure is small. Some people may describe him as puny. At best, he’s six inches tall. What gets me is Leaf’s attention to detail. She made sure to include the figure’s scrotum and penis.

June Leaf, “Figure Covering a Woman” (2010–2011), tin, wire, fabric, acrylic, steel rods, 26 x 32 x 20 (courtesy the gallery)

Alexander Calder’s wire animated sculptures come to mind. In Leaf’s oeuvre, however, the circus has left town and the carnies are creaky-limbed pensioners unwilling to sit still or stop working, no matter how fruitless their activity may or may not be. The figurines do stuff, but get nothing done. The best they can hope for is to receive a few brief moments of respite: to be covered by a blanket as they sleep, as in “Figure Covering a Woman,” or to set one’s head’s down for a few minutes rest, as in “Sleeping Woman.”

The work on view suggests life is an exercise in futility (or an endless journey) that is punctuated by death, and yet, we must go on. Not sentimental but loving. There is no refuge in the world, save a wooden chair to rest a pair of weary legs.

June Leaf: Recent Work has been extended until February 4 at Edward Thorp Gallery (210 Eleventh Avenue, 6th Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan).